Someone captured the current situation facing San Francisco’s grassroots social justice organizations with an after-hours comment at the Coalition on Homelessness this week: “You have to remember that from Labor Day until after the election you can forget about whatever spiritual or ideological motivations you have for doing this work — because in the final weeks local politics turn into a fucking dogfight.”
Humbled champions of the Bay Area’s economy, the hospitality, real estate and travel industries are still staggered by the devastating combination punches of the dot.com implosion, the aftermath of last September 11th, ongoing scandals in corporate accountability, and the cumulative effects of all this on the national economic picture.
Ever-anxious to protect the exorbitant profit margins that made San Francisco into one of the most fabulously expensive locations in the world to live in or to visit, corporate special interests — particularly the tourist and real estate industries — are now employing more direct forms of political combat through negative public relations attack campaigns.
Their targets this election season? Organizations and candidates representing the interests of homeless and low-income San Franciscans.
The ultimate victims? Homeless people and low-income renters.
Because homeless people scattered through the streets and low-income tenants enjoying local rent control protections have been identified as detrimental to these corporate interests’ bottom line.
Those of us who will ultimately gain or lose the most come November — homeless, lowincome and working-class San Francisco voters — are caught squarely between the twin muzzles of the two most vicious attempts yet to remove our presence from an increasingly-gentrified City by the Bay: Proposition N (AKA “Care Not Cash”) and Proposition R (the “Home Ownership Program for Everyone,” or “HOPE”).
Historically, powerful downtown corporate interests have advanced their agendas with our local political machine through promises of soft money to further the ambitions of political machine officeholders — a practice that has become ludicrously transparent during the Mayoral administration of political machine boss Willie Brown. Subsequently, City Hall’s reputation for this sort of gangsterism reached such proportions by the last district elections that Mayor Brown’s endorsement became the de facto kiss of death for machine-connected candidates.
Alarms must have sounded from Pacific Heights all the way to the Financial District, because this occurred in spite of the virtual lock that Willie Brown’s democratic machine has held on San Francisco’s daily newspapers — political remittance for the Brown machine’s machinations facilitating the Hearst Corporation’s notorious acquisition of the Chronicle, as well as the subsequent evasion of federal antitrust actions with an unprecedented giveaway of Hearst’s former flagship Examiner (plus a $66 million bonus) to the “partisan attack dogs” of the flourishing Fang family publishing empire.
Today, both San Francisco dailies have become virtually indistinguishable from the political and business interests they champion in their pages. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the lack of critical reportage on Propositions N and R.
Proposition N is media darling Gavin Newsom’s stealth campaign for Mayor. While lauded to voters as “a compassionate response to homelessness,” Proposition N will reduce cash welfare payments for homeless people to $59.00 per month, under the rubric that the savings would then be applied toward services. The savings from slashing cash benefits by 85% would actually go into the Department of Human Services budget — after which point the dollars could be used for anything.
Worse, especially because housed San Franciscans rarely consider that able-bodied adults on welfare must perform a workfare requirement to be eligible for their benefits, Proposition N will reimburse workfare “volunteer” labor at a rate of about $1.84 per hour, about 27% of minimum wage.
Meanwhile, Proposition N promises the 15,000 or so homeless folks on the waiting list for public housing, the 1100 or so chronic substance abusers on the waiting list for treatment, the 140 or so families on the waiting list for emergency shelter, or any of the unnamed legions chained to a cruel nightly lottery or the privilege of sleeping on some smelly shelter’s floor a guarantee of NOTHING — except for the few services they can now get for free… when they can get them.
Proposition N is so poorly and loosely written that the only clear impact it will have is making San Francisco even more inhospitable to homeless people — no small feat for a town that has already distinguished itself by being named in the top three cities nationally for selective enforcement of anti-homeless “quality of life” statutes most of the past decade. A look at the Proposition N campaign’s primary financial sponsors (the Committee on Jobs (lobbyists representing SF’s top 40 corporations), the Hotel Council, the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, the Building Owners and Manager’s Association, etc.) is even more telling, and ironic, considering the list reads like a list of beneficiaries of the City’s recent business tax lawsuit settlement. And wasn’t it was the Chronicle’s powerful opinion-shaping apparatus that helped the Committee on Jobs to compel the Board of Supervisor’s settlement of the business tax lawsuit last year, leading to a $60 million-plus budget shortfall?
The monies these groups successfully avoided adding to San Francisco’s public coffers are now being used for advertising campaigns like the Proposition N and We Want Change media blitzes — all in service to the bottom line.
In all, the only clear gain made as the Prop N campaign unfolds is in the public’s recognition of Gavin Newsom — doubtlessly numbered among the intended benefits for Mayor Brown’s handpicked machine successor.
In a similar vein, the condo-conversion measure Proposition R (also known as HOPE) is the latest iteration of the local real estate lobby’s relentless predation on renters — a thinly-disguised attempt to give real estate interests a shot in the arm by eroding San Francisco’s rent control ordinance. Under Prop. R, agreement is required from a mere 25 percent of a building’s tenants to condo convert and eventually remove rent control protections, putting all the building’s tenants at risk of eviction under California’s Ellis and the Costa-Hawkins Acts.
Prop. R allows 3,400 condo conversions per year (a 1700% increase from the current 200) in any size building — even those like Park Merced’s — and with no guarantee that anyone will ever buy. In fact, a tenant doesn’t have to have funding in place to sign a non-binding letter of intent to purchase to initiate the condo conversion process. Tenants who don’t buy are offered phony lifetime leases — phony because they circumvent the state’s Ellis and Costa- Hawkins Acts and will most likely be thrown out by the courts.
A similar law in Santa Monica, CA was repealed after 3000 conversions of apartments to condominiums after it was found that only 8 percent of such converted units were ever actually bought by original tenants. A frightening 80 percent of tenants in condo-converted buildings were displaced or evicted. Similarly, an earlier San Francisco version of Proposition R in the late ‘70s netted only 11 percent tenant ownership.
Obviously, mass condo conversions don’t work because they open the door to rampant speculation, and make displacement of lower income tenants far too profitable for landlords and speculators anxious to sell or re-rent their units to higher-income (and most likely out-oftown) folks. What the dot.com boom failed to do, Proposition R stands po
ised to accomplish with little effort, transfiguring San Francisco into a gated community for the rich.
No wonder the Committee on Jobs is pouring so much money into passing N & R! According to the San Francisco Ethics Commission, on September 30 the Committee on Jobs poured $175,000 into Prop R, and another $200,000 into Prop. N.
Proponents of these initiatives have used these funds to mount unprecedented public relations efforts to push these ballot proposals. Gavin Newsom has been featured in 30-second prime time commercial spots for the Prop. N campaign since last May, and the so-called Care Not Cash campaign has averaged spending $20,000-$30,000 weekly on TV airtime since the commercials debuted. The Hotel Council forked over $57,000 for the We Want Change billboard campaign, which accomplishes little besides furthering the distortions from the mainstream press and giving some voters a renewed sense of pent-up frustration.
Conservative Supervisor Tony Hall has hit the campaign trial for Prop. R, paving the way for his announced bid for mayor next year. Frank Gallagher — former landlord and corporate political consultant — now styles himself as an Examiner “political columnist” to better level his false allegations of impropriety at the grassroots Housing Rights Committee, and to better portray non-profit low-income housing providers as the “Nonprofit Mafia.”
Grassroots organizations and candidates defending the rights and interests of those on the bottom rungs of America’s economy are now actively portrayed in local print media as the ones to blame for the social ills they attempt to address. Homeless advocates are being blamed for San Francisco’s intractable “homeless problem.”
Tenant activists are now regularly dismissed as “professional paid tenant activists,” even in the “alternative” queer press.
Corporate media labors to present San Francisco readers with patently skewed depictions of homelessness because the majority of San Francisco’s residents — renters — are under constant threat from the local real estate industry’s insatiable appetite for eviction.
As a result, the average working class citizen has a pressing need to see him- or herself as significantly different from the average homeless person. To this end, the mainstream media presents homeless people as interloping outsiders pursuing a criminal lifestyle at the expense of “our” quality of life, and portrayed in lurid color photos as rarely lacking for accessories like crack pipes or syringes. By playing the public’s fears that they might wind up in similar straits, the separation of poor and homeless people from the “we” that is the dailies’ targeted advertising audience is perfected.
On the tenant front, the Chronicle and Examiner are busily promoting the lie that San Francisco is now a renters’ market and that rents have come down substantially — implying that tenant activists are complaining about nothing.
Forget the fact that rents are still double what they were before the dot.com boom, that low-income renters are still being forced out of the city by owner move-ins and Ellis Act evictions, and that Chron-endorsed Proposition R is the greatest threat to low-income renters in a long time.
Over the years, the Chronicle has consistently opposed pro-tenant measures — whether they’re intended to end capital-improvement passthroughs or to stop evictions for Tenancies In Common. While housing should be a guaranteed human right, and not a commodity, corporate media has little interest in honest portrayals of these issues.
The Hearst Corporation, owner of the Chronicle, is a significant player in Northern California real estate, with its Sunical division’s vast holdings in ranch lands and logging tracts along California’s central coast, as well as the Hearst Realty and San Francisco Realty companies.
Telling the truth would entail challenging the real-estate industry’s right to unlimited profit, while the real estate industry represents the Chronicle’s number one advertising revenue source.
And that’s something you will never read in the Chronicle’s editorial pages.
If these initiatives are successful November 5th, we can look forward to more homelessness, a tighter local housing market, higher rents, and deeper poverty for homeless people and low income renters.
But ultimately, the biggest losers will be San Francisco’s voters — because the local lack of journalistic integrity in the service of Willie Brown’s political machine impoverishes us all.